Learning Blackjack Basic Strategy

Playing blackjack at the casino can be a lot of fun. Besides being entertaining, sometimes the experience can be profitable, if as Charlie Sheen says, you are “Winning!” Winning makes it a great deal more fun.

The next time you visit a casino, plan to win. This website is devoted to just that – helping you prepare for a winning experience.

There are many games at the casino, but my personal favorite is BLACKJACK.  To be frank, Blackjack is the only casino game I really understand well.  Roulette is simple enough, but the odds are stacked against you, especially in the United States, where the wheels have 1 more number not found in Europe.  That “double zero” position increases the house advantage in Roulette.  Roulette is more a game of luck than of skill. 

Blackjack is different.  Unlike most casino games, which are won or lost by a toss of dice or the spin of a wheel, over neither of which the player has any control, blackjack is a game of skill.  Roulette, for example, is a game of random numbers.  Perhaps you can win at Roulette with a bit of intuition, but all the math is against the player.  I’m sure there are some Roulette aficionados who would argue the point.  They may suggest, for example that you can play red or black and have a 50-50 chance of winning.  But the odds of either red or black coming up is never 50-50, because there are also two green slots, the zero and the double zero. Once the player has put his chips on the table, his part of the play is done.

Blackjack, on the other hand, is a game of continuing decisions.  The skill of Blackjack is in knowing how to make intelligent, science-based decisions.  Blackjack is also a game of mathematical probabilities.  You need not be a mathematician to enjoy the game, of course, but you should understand that there are scientific reasons to do or not do certain things as the game progresses.

A skillful blackjack player actually has a slight advantage over the house. In fact, I believe blackjack is the only casino game where the player has such an advantage. A skillful poker player may have a winning advantage, but in the game of poker one is actually playing against other players, not the casino.

7 Player Advantages

There at least 7 key advantages on the side of the Blackjack player that the dealer does not share.  Local rules offered at certain casinos may actually add some more advantages, as we will explore later.  The first four of these player-side advantages are controlled entirely by the player’s skill, and understanding of the principles of basic Blackjack strategy, which we will explain in some detail later:

  1. The player can split, (make two hands from one),
    when it is advantageous to do so.
  2. The player can double down, (double the amount bet), when it is advantageous to do so.
  3. The player can stand, (not take any more cards), when it is advantageous to do so.
  4. The player can hit, (take another card), when it is advantageous to do so.
  5. The fifth player advantage is what gives the game its name. When the player’s first two cards dealt add up to 21, the house pays “time and a half.” That is, when you get a natural blackjack, a two-card 21, the payback is 1 and a half times the bet, instead of even money. This happens, on average, once in every 21 hands. There is no skill in getting a “blackjack,” of course. It is pure mathematics.
  6. The 6th player advantage deals with money management. The player can vary the size of his bet, increasing it when it is advantageous to do so, and reducing it when it is advantageous to do so. Learning such a betting strategy, however, is secondary to mastering basic strategy. Without knowing basic strategy better than the back of your hand, betting strategy is useless.
  7. The 7th player advantage involves soft 17s, which we will explore in detail. The player has the option to stand or hit or double down on a soft 17, when it is advantageous to do so. The dealer has no choice, and either hits or stands depending upon the rule at the particular casino or table. This can vary from one table to another, even within the same casino.

Like any game, Blackjack has a fairly simple set of rules.  The best rule of all is that the dealer has no options.  He or she must play like a machine, following one strict rule with no personal choices:  The dealer must draw to and stand on 17, in some cases hitting on soft 17s.

Soft 17s

One variation of the “draw to and stand on 17” rule is that in some casinos, the dealer must hit on a soft 17.  A soft 17 is a hand which includes an Ace, and can therefore be counted either as either 7 or 17.  This gives the house a slight advantage, as pulling another Ace, or a 2 through 4, will improve the dealer’s hand.  Pulling a 5 or 6 gives the dealer another shot at the apple, so to speak, but the dealer pulling a 7, 8, or 9 on top of a soft 17 actually benefits the player.  Pulling a 10 simply converts the dealer’s hand from a soft to a hard 17 – and takes out of play a perfectly good 10 that might better have been dealt to a player.  Science favors the players when the deck is rich with 10s.

You will know 17 rule at your particular table, as it is printed in big letters on the table in front of the dealer: “Dealer must stand on all 17s”.   It is instructive to know why the dealer hits soft 17s.  Hitting soft 17 does offer an advantage.  The dealer does it only rarely, but you can hit, or even double down on soft 17, when it is advantageous to do so.  Understand that only 5 out of 13 cards that can hurt your soft 17.  They are the 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9.  A lower card improves your hand, and a 10 does nothing but reduce the number of 10s left in the deck.

This is not to suggest always hitting a soft 17, but the player has that option, “when it is advantageous to do so.” 

Knowing when it is advantageous to do so:

Notice that I have repeatedly used the phrase, “when it is advantageous to do so.”  The key to winning at Blackjack is in knowing when it is advantageous for the player to choose to split, double down, stand or hit.  Therein lies the science of “basic strategy” in Blackjack.  Knowing when it is advantages to take one action over another in the game of Blackjack is the purpose of this article.

We will discuss soft 17’s more below, but I won’t keep you in suspense.  As we will see below, it is to your advantage  to hit a soft 17 against a dealer’s Ace, or 8 thru 10.  Better yet the player should double down against a 3 thru 6.  Only against a dealer’s 7 should we stand on soft 17.

I did not invent Blackjack basic strategy.  The principles presented here have been learned from others, and from countless hours of playing the game in more casinos than I care to count, from one coast to another and points between.  My own experience is measured in perhaps only a few thousand of hands.  Okay, maybe more, but who’s counting.  But the principles presented here were worked out long before I ever laid eyes on a Blackjack table.  The science of Blackjack is one of math and probabilities and calculated and proven decades ago through mathematical analysis of millions of hands.

The first of numerous such studies was published over half a century ago in the Journal of the American Statistical Association.  More thorough analysis was later conducted by computer simulation, and published half a century ago (1962) in a book entitled Beat the Dealer by Edward Thorp.

What should I do?

Nearly every time I have played the game of Blackjack, a fellow player has turned to me, or others at the table, and asked, “What should I do?”  Invariably, some helpful soul at the table will respond, “Well the book says . . .”   

Many books have been written on Blackjack.  The “book” they refer to has actually been reduced to a grid chart that shows the dealer’s up card in columns along the top, with the player’s hand shown in rows down the left side, and the proper split, double, hit or stand choice shown where the appropriate row and column intersect.  That chart was published in professor Thorp’s book, the outcome of extensive scientific analysis of the game of Blackjack through repeated computer simulations.

Today we needn’t concern ourselves with the details of that research, other than to know that the research as been done and the answers are already determined for us.  Gaining the benefit of all that scientific analysis is accomplished simply by learning that chart, and governing your play accordingly.  Armed with such knowledge, we never need to ask, “What should I do?” 

The problem with that assignment, however, is that unless you have a photographic memory, learning the chart to perfection is difficult.  My purpose here, and the whole point of this article, is to give you a series of memory aids to make that learning quick and easy.

            First, however, let’s do a little math, if only to convince you that this whole strategy is based on science, and that there is a sound reason behind every move in Blackjack basic strategy.  Until you accept that, you’ll continue playing the game by hunch.

Let’s start with the makeup of a deck of cards, in order to understand the mathematical basis and certainty involved in the game.

A       2          3          4          5          6          7

         8          9          10        J           Q         K

Notice that there are 13 cards in each of four suits, diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades, for a total of 52 cards in each deck.  It does not matter how many decks are used, whether it is a single deck game or a game dealt from a six or eight deck shoe.  The ratio of tens and aces to other cards is still the same.  Four of the thirteen – the ten, jack, queen and king – each have a value of ten.  The ace is unique in that it can have a value of one or eleven. 

It’s really quite simple:  7.14% of the cards in the deck are aces, and 28.56% of the cards in the deck are tens.  Statistically, over the course of 100,000 hands in the game of Blackjack, a ten and an ace are dealt as the first two cards about 4.76% of the time. That equates to one blackjack in every 21 hands, on average.  It is a mathematical certainty.  You can take that to the bank – or the casino cashier window, as the case may be.

The reason we double down on a hand that has a 2-card value of ten, is that five out of the thirteen cards in the deck, or 35.7%, will give us a hand of either 20 or 21.  That is more than 1/3 of the cards!  As you will see, the only time you should not double down on ten, is when the dealer is showing a ten or ace.

The reason we must stand on a hard 17 is that nine of the thirteen cards in the deck, or 71.44%, would cause us to go over 21, or bust.

Likewise, the reason we split 8s, instead of simply hitting the 16, is that eight of the 13 cards, nearly 61.54%, would bust our hand if we accepted a third card.  The only way of winning on a 16 is if the dealer busts, since he or she cannot stop taking cards until reaching at least 17.  By splitting the 8s to two hands we at least have an opportunity to turn one bad hand into two better hands.  This should really be a “no-brainer,” for fairly obvious reasons, but at least take it on faith.  Splitting 8s is universally the right move, as proven by “the book’s” computer analysis, regardless of what the dealer shows.

So it is with all the hands you are dealt.  The mathematical probabilities have already been worked out for all the Blackjack hands you will ever see.  The best decision has already been determined for you.  All you need do is remember what to do in each situation.

That said, we should note that there have been many books written on the subject of Blackjack Basic Strategy, with several variations on the data. For example some experts say never to split 4s, while other say to split 4s against a dealer's 4, 5 or 6. Still others say to do so only against the dealer's 5 or 6, which is our recommendation.

Also, Basic BlackJack strategy is mostly about splits and doubles. There are possible hands not covered here. If we do not suggest otherwise in these 21 Rules of Basic Strategy, the proper course of action is generally to hit. We have a variation on that idea later when we talking about hitting on a hard 16 in Other Hands section.

Remembering the grid chart from “the book” is a bit cumbersome unless you have a photographic memory.  Most of us do not.  Because of this I have chosen not even to reprint the basic strategy chart from “the book.”  Chances are you’re already familiar with that chart anyway. Some casino gift shops actually sell the charts, no doubt certain most people will not actually commit them to memory. They can also be purchased online. Instead, I offer a simpler method of remembering the decisions shown in the basic strategy chart.

To memorize “the book” is simply a matter of learning 21 simple rules to help you remember Blackjack basic strategy.  Don’t worry, we make it simple.  For many of these rules there are clues right in your hand, so remembering is really quite simple.  They are presented in four groups:

After you have studied each the four groups of the 21 Rules of Blackjack Basic Strategy, we give you a bonus with Rule No. 22.